Saving public education depends on transcending intractable politics

The problem with public education is not the children but the adults. It is paramount we deconstruct underpinnings behind partisan gridlock.

 (NewsWorks file)

(NewsWorks file)

In Washington, seldom are there unifying partnerships between Republicans and Democrats reaching across the aisle for the long-run benefit of America. A flourishing public education system, fostering adolescent development, is one of the civic pillars necessary to sustain a thriving democracy. Paradoxically, both student and “independent” parental voices are being silenced as partisan special interests have eclipsed control, circumventing broad-based community outreach. Unfortunately, millions of innocent children in the public school network end up trapped inside the vacuum of winner-take-all politics.

The voting public is a crucial component to educational system checks and balances, but not enough objective data is dispersed to community members to make informed decisions on public education policies. On the U.S. Department of Education website, most statistics from each state’s overall high school graduation rates are based on data from the 2012-13 academic year. On individual websites for some of the largest urban school districts — e.g., Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta — the overall high school graduation rates for the preceding academic year are not available. Where is the breakdown of every individual high school’s graduation rates? Regarding perennially struggling schools, what percentage of teachers were fired as a result of unsatisfactory job performance? And what percentage of teachers at poor-performing facilities received satisfactory ratings on their performance evaluations? In the Information Age, it is absurd that some of largest districts in the country are still getting away with not disclosing facts.

As a whole, the public education establishment wants to maintain or recapture its monopoly, which often leads to proponents taking a hard line against all comprehensive reforms. A lack of fair and equitable funding is customarily held as the culprit behind poor academic progress from one year to the next at chronically struggling schools, because vast majority of union teachers and principals are perceived as exemplary professionals by their supporters, who frequently go beyond the call of duty, working miracles with limited resources.

It is a disservice to taxpayers when the public education establishment routinely measures academic achievement by short-sighted gains such as college enrollment rates for a graduating class — while the overall graduation rate in higher education for undergraduates enrolled full time at public four-year institutions is below 60 percent, according to U.S. Department of Education, and graduation rates for students who attend for-profit institutions or community colleges are significantly lower. At public universities, what percentage of students are graduating on time in four years? It would be a greater service to our communities if public school staff embraced the long-view, using calculations based on salary and career outcomes universally considered family-sustaining.

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According to data recently released from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an ongoing evaluation administered by the federal government, most high school seniors have not been adequately prepared to handle the rigors of college-level academics — yet the majority of public education students across the country were supposedly enrolled in a college-preparatory curriculum during their tenures in high school. (The data highlights that only 37 percent of graduating seniors actually are prepared to handle a college course load).

Many school choice advocates would give public education a failing grade and feel that, for a majority of students, the public system doesn’t prepare them either for college or the world of work. (Not much about how traditional public schools operate has changed in nearly 50 years.) Numerous school choice supporters believe that the teachers unions’ main objective is to discredit any individual or organization that doesn’t want to maintain the status quo. School voucher advocates believe applying a free-market approach to education and injecting competition will be the equalizer to putting an end to the public school monopoly — and additionally will assist in the process of curtailing the biggest cost driver in education spending: public pension liability growth. Most school choice advocates deduce it’s in the best interests of taxpayers to switch public workers from a defined benefits program to a defined contribution retirement plan, because the traditional pension system is unsustainable — which is why the private sector eliminated pensions decades ago.

Philadelphia has the fifth- or sixth-largest population in the United States, with thousands more retired pensioners collecting a check than city employees on the current payroll. The financial burden of having to borrow money to pay pensioners is threatening to sink the city’s credit rating, boosting borrowing costs not only to pay current debts but future capital needs as well. The city of Philadelphia has 40 cents in its pension fund for every dollar it needs to pay retirees, and the state of Pennsylvania has about 60 cents in its pension fund for every dollar it needs to pay retirees. This municipal financial crisis is happening all across America. One of the primary reasons why Detroit, filed for Chapter 9 protection in July 2013 — the largest city ever in American history to do so — was because pension obligations earmarked in the budget outpaced annual revenues by millions of dollars.

The problem with public education is not the children but the adults. It is paramount we deconstruct underpinnings behind partisan gridlock across the public education landscape — because when establishment public school supporters and school choice advocates perceive statistics to be agreeable, they are considered factual, but when they are considered disagreeable, they are falsehoods. Furthermore, both lobbyist factions will not publicly acknowledge the merits of counter-arguments — and in many instances, those in leadership roles ideologically feel their adversaries are not only wrong but “evil.”

As a nation, we owe students more. Cooperative problem solving is for the greater good of society. We must never quit pursuing the dream of high-quality education for all, because our country’s well-being depends on us transcending politics.

Jason Kaye is a writer and student advocate residing in Philadelphia.

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